Agnosticism and the Gary Hart Case

Former Senator Gary Hart (center), with former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, in 2016. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last month I had an article in the print magazine about a reported deathbed confession, by the GOP operative Lee Atwater, that he had intentionally set up the Monkey Business escapade that effectively ended the presidential campaign of Gary Hart.

Last week Todd Purdum, of The Atlantic, had a very good piece on the new movie, The Front Runner, about Hart during this catastrophically decisive week of his life. I hope you read the piece, and I liked all but one paragraph of it. Here is the exception:

(For the record, [Matt] Bai doesn’t accept the notion, recently reported by my Atlantic colleague James Fallows, that Hart might have been set up by the GOP operative Lee Atwater, who is said to have made a dying confession of just that to Hart’s former media adviser, Raymond Strother. “There’s no way you could have bounced all those balls in the right order,” Bai says).

I read Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out when it was published, and talked with him several times while writing my article (in which he is quoted). I think that Todd Purdum’s summary of Bai’s views inadvertently conflates two separate issues.

One question is whether the whole, intricate, Rube Goldberg-ish chain of circumstances that led from Hart’s getting on a boat in Miami, to his withdrawal from the race several weeks later, followed a specifically worked-out plan. Bai thinks it is far too elaborate to have been plotted out that way. That is what he told Todd Purdum recently, and that is also what he told me earlier this year.

But was Gary Hart set up? That is a different question, which was the topic of my story.

As I pointed out, since most of the principals are dead, the full truth about this misadventure may simply be unknowable. (Lee Atwater’s reported confession came just before his death in the early 1990s. Billy Broadhurst, the Louisiana lobbyist who brought Hart onto the Monkey Business, died in 2017. Donna Rice, who is now Donna Rice Hughes, may or may not know the full story. She has resisted interview requests on the episode, including mine, though recently she announced on Twitter that she was working on her own memoir.)

But the main argument in my piece is that it was worth considering the possibility, newly revealed by someone with a career-long reputation for honesty (Raymond Strother), that the episode began as part of a deliberate plan.That is: What if Atwater had intentionally set temptation and peril in Hart’s path, not knowing exactly what would happen next, but confident that something would?

On the first question--whether everything rolled out as Atwater foresaw—Matt Bai said he was skeptical, and so am I. But the second question--whether Lee Atwater might have plotted to get something going with Hart—is different. To me, this version of reality is unprovable, but conceivable. I understand Matt Bai to come out on that same side. As I quoted him in my article about this possibility: “It would be just like the perversity of history for someone to undertake an effort that might well have happened by itself.”

I elaborate on this distinction because it’s not quite the same as “Bai doesn’t accept the notion … that Hart might have been set up.”

Might Hart have been set up by Lee Atwater? I don’t know whether it did happen, but to me the evidence suggests that it could have. And we are left in the realm of what-if? and agnosticism. As I wrote at the end of my piece:

In announcing the suspension of his campaign, Hart angrily said, “I believe I would have been a successful candidate. And I know I could have been a very good president, particularly for these times. But apparently now we’ll never know.”

We won’t.